The apples sold at supermarkets are not cultivated for flavor, nor texture, nor eating, really. They are cultivated for aesthetic and storage. That is how you can get a “fresh” apple in May – three full months before the first ripe apples in the Pacific Northwest – that has flawless skin and a signature rosy hue. It is also why I stopped eating apples years ago, because, frankly, they were flavorless and had an awful, chalky/mealy texture that triggered my gag reflex.
Farmers’ markets are doing their part to resurrect apples meant for eating. They are offering organic varieties fresh from the orchards, such as Northern Spy and Ginger Gold, that you simply cannot find in a traditional market. However, they only bring the most beautiful, flawless fruit with a penchant for apples meant to be eaten in hand rather than in pastry. As a backyard gourmet, I prefer apples meant for cooking. Odd shapes, lumps, and battle wounds are fine by me so long as they taste close-you-eyes-and-relish-it amazing. Fruit must have the right balance of acid and tannin to maintain flavor integrity with sugar and spice, and enough density to hold its shape under heat. While the Gravenstein will always remain dear to me, my heart went pitter-pat when I bit into a Tompkins King at Jones Creek Farms.
It was green, August is simply too early in the season for King apples. I did not care. I knew them the second I saw the gigantic globes on the branches what I’d found, and flashed to my seven year old self in my grandparents’ front yard, climbing the biggest apple tree they had. Those apples were HUGE, and I was impatient, and I would eat the unripe fruit until my jaw ached from puckering at their sour flesh. Late season apples, Kings are better after the first frost, when homes are meant to be filled with the aroma of cinnamon and pastry and warmth. The Tompkins King, first cultivated in New Jersey but named erroneously for a location in New York, is a colonial American classic predating the Declaration of Independence. You cannot find them at the grocery store, but they are worthy of a journey to the countryside. In an era where time is more valuable than gold, my friend Caroline the Fairy Godmother and I dedicated an entire day of travel and labor, a modern day king’s ransom, to my pursuit of The Perfect Apple-iest Apple.
Jones Creek Farms was a dream come true. Caroline set out to find apples for eating in hand while I ventured deep into the orchard in search of baking apples. I was grateful for Caroline’s company and conversation, but I was equally grateful for the solitude she granted me amongst the fruit laden trees. The smell of the windfalls crushing beneath my feet, the rush of adrenaline as I dodged spiders and bees, the discovery of a giant paper wasps’ nest – the wonder of nature’s bounty is something I enjoy most when I am alone. Filling our satchels in the company of dragonflies and grasshoppers as the late summer sun rose high above us, we were happy to sit in the shade of the farm’s majestic willow and visit with Jumper the labrador as we mopped sweat from our brows. I had found a few Kings on the cusp of ripeness but gathered mostly Richardsons, which are equally delicious, and we loaded her car with the smell of autumn’s pending arrival and zoomed south toward home.
There is something about the din of farm life that appeals to the depths of my femininity. I feel most empowered, completely spiritually centered, when my cheeks are grazed by a sparrows wings as I gather apples, when I vie with the yellow jackets for mid-summer blackberries, and when I meet eyes with a fawn as we both venture toward a secret gathering spot in the woods. Picking apples to preserve for the depths of winter is tantamount to my inner gatherer. The smell of cattle is the sweet aroma of home, and happiness is an exhausted snuggle with a manure crusted retriever. As I sank my teeth deep into the flesh of a King apple a chainsaw droned in the distance, a bluejay chirped in the trees, and children laughed in the nearby pumpkin patch forming a rural symphony. I breathed deep and let my mind drift toward pie.
It is remarkable how closely the history of the apple tree is connected with that of man. – Henry David Thoreau
Grandma’s Apple Crisp (Dessert for Non-Bakers)
Pie crust is best reserved for ambitious pastry chefs. So simple, yet so daunting, if you screw it up your entire dessert is ruined. Apple Crisp captures all of the goodness of apple pie without sending you running in a panic for a bottle of Mommy’s Little Helper Merlot. Serves 8-10, table ready in 75 minutes.
3 lbs Baking Apples (Kings, Gravensteins, Winesap, or <gasp> Granny Smith, if you must)
1/3 C. Brown Sugar
1/3 C. Granulated Sugar
1/3 C. All Purpose Flour
1 Heaping Teaspoon Cinnamon
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.Peel, core, and slice apples into 1/4″ slices into a large mixing bowl. In a separate bowl, mix together dry ingredients then pour over apples, stirring to evenly coat them. Pour apples into a lightly buttered 9×13 glass baking dish and set aside.
1 Cup Old Fashioned Rolled Oats
1 Cup Firmly Packed Brown Sugar
1 Cup Chopped Pecans
1/2 Cup Flour
1 Teaspoon Salt
1/2 Cup Butter *cold*
Toss dry ingredients together. Cut your butter into cubes, then work it into your dry ingredients with your fingertips, working until it resembles a coarse meal and all of the butter bits are smaller than peas. Sprinkle evenly over your apples. Bake 35-45 minutes, until filling is bubbly, apples are fork tender, and topping is crispy. Allow to cool slightly, serve warm with vanilla ice cream.